Learning a language the Web 2.0 way

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TechCrunch UK recently ignited a debate around education startups in the UK, but it’s quite clear that the biggest Web 2.0 education market is language learning – and that market, obviously, scales internationally. Here, Nicola Robinsonova of Learnitlists.com pens a guest post about the myriad services out there and which ones cut the mustard.

‘Unless there is a law of physics forbidding a technology, then it’s not only possible, it is sure to be built’ (Michio Kaku) – and where the $20 billion second language acquisition market is concerned, this is certanly true. The essential nature of Web 2.0 (in one definition, the active use of technologies such as social networking, WIKIs, blogs and crowd filtration to create web-based communities who collaborate, create and share content) offers great opportunities for language learners.

In an ideal world we would all speak the same language, or, at the very least, be able to download a new language on demand, perhaps directly into our brains via telepathy (advertising suggest that this already happens – ‘speak a new language in 10 minutes’ for example), but, since God smote the Tower of Babbel, and sent us off wandering the earth in distinct linguistic groups, learning a new language has involved some applied effort.

If you are a native English speaker looking to acquire a new language there’s a bounty of resources out there. That you don’t already speak a second language would indicate that the Web 1.0 and pre web techniques available didn’t work so well for you. So… you don’t have time for nightschool, you don’t have the inclination to study from a CD. What is out there in the Web 2.0 world to help you out?

Given that there are 5,000 active languages in the world, the most important factor in determining how useful any specific web 2.0 language service will be to you is simply, do they have your language? There are masses of tools for Spanish, Chinese, French & German… however there isn’t so much around if your were learning Czech, for example. From a business perspective, English is the number one language in the Second Language Acquisition industry – with 750 million learners according to the British Council.

In terms of revenue generation, there are over 100 language sites currently using Google to source advertising, and many sites which offer a straight monthly subscription, monthly payment or freemium model. There are also a growing number which have sourced investment from VC’s – such as Babbel and LiveMocha. Here’s a review of the sites using Web 2.0:

To kick off with bit of learning to take you on holiday: Getawayphrases works with your mobile phone to optimise your recall of words and phrases. Once you’re committed (business model – subscriptions. 9.99 GBP flat fee) you’ll be prompted by your phone throughout the day to revise 7 new words. 4 languages. I hear that their iPhone app will be out later in the summer.

In the iPhone webapp directory already is Cool Gorilla‘s lastminute.com talking translator. 6 languages – showing short phrases grouped by category with no sound, making their directory write-up a little inaccurate. They should have gone to getawayphrases.com.

Looking at the iPhone downloads app store there were more apps available, and it was easier to navigate through them. Under travel or education you could find nine main brands from 0.79 – 7.99 euros. Two broad categories – phrases for immediate use when travelling or flashcard style functions for longer term learning, in a range of languages. Brands included iLingo, Babelingo, Lingolook, Lingou, Lonely Planet, Talking Phrasebook (Coolgorilla), AccelaStudy (Renkara Media Group) and Mywords pod101.com.*

Tools to build a bit more vocabulary:
Learnitlists.com (I declare an interest as this is my startup) provides a widget that can be placed on iPhone, any web page, Facebook & your desktop (xp). Currently covering 24 languages, you are given 10 new words every day, from 1500 common words. Functions include learn (with test), listen, speak, write (with translate tool) & share. Most of the functionality is availabe free of charge (ad supported) . You can subscribe to hear sound from a speaking avatar, or listen to other learners for free. There is no work in setting up the service as the 10 daily words are generated for you.

Another free vocab building service is FlashcardExchange – (a more advanced charged version is also available). You can either input your own data or use cards set up by other users. It only takes a little time to work out how to use the site, though the (oh so web 2.0) three step plan is somewhat misleading. No sound available.

If you’re willing to pay for the software, there are many user generated resources available with the SuperMemo service. This clever software tracks your learning and makes revision materials available in tune with the points at which you are most likely to forget your learning – or rather reclassify memories from short term, filing them in either longer term or probably not important.

IngoLingo will train you in 3,000 words over 3 months, with an opt in nag function. This is a free service but too buggy to let me register. The homepage looked good – shame it didn’t work. I might have just been a bit unlucky.

LingQ – With free, basic, plus and premium services – up to 79 USD per month. For a dedicated learner this site looks like a good bet. I was dissapointed that Czech was not included in the 10 languages offered.

MangoLanguages offer 8 languages, plus 3 ESL (English as a Second Language). A nice, slick presentation of lessons, with text and commentary. The site is somewhat secretive about the price for the premium service option. Very nice, but it did feel a bit like the language lab at my secondary school. If they offered Czech, I’d definitely have tried it.

Language Exchange sites are useful once you’ve got some basic phrases and vocabulary sorted, and claim to be not just another social network category. The sites give learners the ability to create relationships with other learners, and use their newly acquired language skills with native speakers. As well as destination sites, some of these provide a limited range of functionality via mainstream social networks such as Facebook. Critical mass is very important & numbers speak loudly – my criteria would be to find a site with lots of Czech users who wanted to chat/skype or whatever. It would have been nice to have access to this info without having to go through the pain of registering on each site – for example by giving me an indication of how many native Czech speakers were online at the time I visited.

Palabea.net has a focus on social networking and informal tutoring. A beautiful site – really pretty design. They are obviously well supported financially with organised PR and articles in the mainstream UK press. Launched earlier this year, a sustained marketing campaign is necessary to garner the user numbers to compete with longer established brands.

My Language Exchange has been going for eight years and has a million users from 133 countries, speaking 113 languages. Not quite as polished in appearance as others in the sector. Facilities include chatroom, e-mail, user created word games, Skype calls to other learners. You need to buy a gold membership (6 USD for a month) in order to initiate contact with other members.

Italki is a social network of people interested in exchanging their language skills. They have 200,000 users and include 90 languages – though 14 main languages. Their Wiki feature is a section called ‘knowledge’ where any user can add videos, audio and text. They also have a Facebook application but the functionality on the app didn’t seem to have acheived critical mass.

LiveMocha is available in English & Spanish – but also covers French, Hindi, German, and Mandarin Chinese, amongst others. It’s currently (predicatably) in beta and free, but will charge for some services in the future. LiveMocha has oral or written exercises and courses, and a community of users from which to find practice partners. LiveMocha secured 6m dollars investment in January 2008.

Friendsabroad:’speak it, learn it, live it’ is a free language learning network. They say they have millions of users from over 200 countries speaking over 80 languages. Their business model is ad suported. A search for Czech speakers came back with 233 people. The interface is in 5 languages. After searching for potential contacts, you can use skype to talk to other registered users. They have a world lingo powered phrase translator to help if you get stuck talking to your new friend. Revenue from advertising, with some premium features in the pipeline.

Penpalvoice – search for web 2.0 penpals – just launched & yet to reach a critical mass of usership.

Babbel is available in English, German, Spanish, Italian and French. This language community provides user generated content as well as ready made lessons, and has a very web 2.0 look. They recently secured an undisclosed investment.

LingoZone – from the grammar on the homepage I got the distinct impression that English was not the first language for this site. LingoZone is an older site, ad supported (Ukranian wives/Muslim brides for example). There’s community, chat & games. I lurked in the chat room for a moment, where guest1 was commenting to sexidanni that LingoZone seemed quiet these days. LingoZone has a popularity board, as well as a score board. It’s rather web 1.0 in appearance though with web 2.0 functionality.

Voxswap ‘the social network for learning languages’ – ‘most popular users’ get their photo on the homepage. Chat, Forums and youtube video content available, with a VOIP coming soon. 2884 users signed up. 22 of them spoke Czech, but the system didn’t let me filter for those who were fluent, rather than beginner level.

What is striking about traditional SLA (second language acquisition) companies is their seeming lack of interest in Web 2.0 technology. All the usual suspects have sites where you can buy books and courses on CD – some offer free downloads (which transpire to be transcripts of material already purchased, or less).

Even in terms of advertising they are notable only for their absence – Natively is the only SLA with a heavy presence on Facebook (downloadable language courses, with no preview, for an undefined fee – alongside the opportunity to pay them for a place in the US Greencard lottery). Where is the Rosetta Stone Facebook app? The Berlitz chat room? The Michel Thomas screensaver?

(If you’re interested in making a quick tour of the above sites, as well as some more old school resources, I’ve put a tour together using jogtheweb.

iPhone Travel downloads:

• Beijing games mini phrase book – (100 phrases with sound) being the cheapest at .79 euros.

• iLingo (by Talking Panda) French/Mandarin, German, Spanish, Cantonese, Italian, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, French, Japanese, Korean 7.99 euros. 400 words & phrases with sound.

• Babelingo (Alta Vida) 4.99 euros, 300 phrases, 7 languages. No sound.

• Lingolook Italy, Japan, China, France 3.99 euros, flashcards and phrases.

• Lingou (Edovia) English, German, Spanish & Italian audio, with 13 other languages. 2.39 euros.

• Lonely Planet Phrasebook – Cantonese, Czech, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, Thai, Vietnamese. 7,99 euros. 600 phrases. With audio (version 2 better quality audio)

• Talking Phrasebook (Coolgorilla) ‘too busy to learn a new language? Download the lastminute.com talking phrasebook and let your iPhone or iPod touch do the talking’. Great idea, but the app didn’t seem to be finished before it went life – with no info or pics available in the directory.

Iphone Education downloads.

AccelaStudy (Renkara Media Group) 11.99. 1200 words in 41 subject areas in the format of flipcards. Dutch, Japanese, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Portuguese, German, French, Italian and Spanish available. Mywords pod101.com (Innovative Language Learning LLC) 7.99 euros Japanese, German, Arabic, French, Italian, Korean, Spanish, Russian. Released on the 12th August this year, the application advocates learning 10 words a day – and so do I.

  • http://www.muchosmedia.com Stefan Richter

    I can add some more to this list:

    My company has helped build eduFire’s video learning application and supplied the whiteboard to Myngle.


  • http://www.blurb.com JPWisler

    Timely post.

    I have been learning Dutch on Twitter….I have a feeling the grammer is not correct.


  • http://www.palabea.net Patricia

    Dear Guest Autor,
    Thank you for this review. It´s really complete and useful. My name is Patricia and I am the founder of palabea.net. I only want to say that we don´t have any PR Agentur : ). We do all things by ourselfes…

  • http://blog.luziaresearch.com Al

    Wow – a pretty exhaustive list of the language sites – well researched!

    Thanks for the mention of getawayphrases.


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  • http://www.casafuturatech.com/ TDK

    Good survey of websites! I’m working on new method of learning second languages, based on my background in speech pathology and neuroscience. My focus is on auditory processing, or learning to hear a foreign language. There are many methods that teach learners to read and write a foreign language, and then you arrive in the foreign country and can’t understand what people are saying, and they can’t understand your accent. Contact me via my website if you want to share ideas.

  • http://www.jonathanclarke.me Jonathan

    Chinesepod.com for the win. Freaking awesome.

  • http://www.myngle.com Egbert


    My name is Egbert van Keulen, co-founder of http://www.myngle.com, the global marketplace for live online language instruction.

    This is a great article, and almost complete as unfortunately there is no mentioning of Myngle, one of the leading players in this field, with 20,000 members signing up since December 2007.

    A good demonstration of how live online language instruction works can be found in our brand new demo: http://www.myngle.com/demo/demo.swf

    Now the list is complete.

  • http://blog.outerthoughts.com Alexandre Rafalovitch

    I find it strange that neither WordChamp or SpanishPod/ChinesePod are mentioned. They both have innovative technologies that are well worth exploring.

  • http://www.learnitlists.com Nicola Robinsonova

    I found over a hundred sites with resources for language learners. To review all of them would be appropriate for a directory, rather than an article. What is special about WordChamp or SpanishPod/ChinesePod, out of interest?

  • http://katefoy.com Dramagirl

    Face to Face and Spoken {seesmic_video:{“url_thumbnail”:{“value”:”http://t.seesmic.com/thumbnail/dypM9OhsJt_th1.jpg”}”title”:{“value”:”Face to Face and Spoken “}”videoUri”:{“value”:”http://www.seesmic.com/video/rOp1oZxMHR”}}}

  • http://kizgiydirme.com kız giydirme

    Web 2,0 will be definitly the main , thanks

  • http://www.learnitlists.com/2008/09/05/directory-of-web-20-language-resources/ Directory of web 2.0 language resources | Learnit lists

    […] researching available resources for my techcrunch UK article, it has become clear that what we need is a language specific directory of resources for learners […]

  • http://www.busuu.com Bernhard

    Hi, very nice article indeed…but as Co-Founder of http://www.busuu.com I think though that it’s worth mentioning our website as well! ;-)

    We launched in May and are thriving – we recently introduced a flash-based motivational tool where the learning progress of the user is directly visualized.
    You can have a look at our tour here:

    Kind regards from Madrid

  • http://www.palabea.net/ gorka arce

    Hi Nicola,

    thanks for the article, very exhaustive and objective review of the state of things in the branch.

    greetings from palabea


  • http://teachinglearningspanish.blogspot.com/ Karen

    Great list! I blog about learning Spanish and it’s overwhelming the number of resources out there.

  • http://www.neurolanguage.com/blog Michael

    If anybody out there is looking to learn English quickly and effectively, I recommend BusinessWeek BSL – Business as a Second Language. It lets you learn English while staying up to date with current events. Check out http://www.businessweekbsl.com for a free subscription.

  • http://www.neurolanguage.com/blog/?p=104 The Edisco Agenda » Blog Archive » Social language networks: Too many choices, not enough substance

    […] around social networking. Nicola Robinsonova of Learnitlists.com contributed a great article on the UK version of TechCrunch a few months ago focusing squarely on how social networking has evolved into a place for people to […]

  • http://www.guate360.com jorge

    I have seen some people looking to learn spanish in http://www.guate360.com

  • http://blog.learn10.com/?p=146 Directory of web 2.0 language resources « The Learn10 Blog

    […] researching available resources for my TechCrunch UK article, it has become clear that what we need is a language specific directory of resources for learners […]

  • http://www.mandarintube.com carolzhou4

    I recommend a Free Chinese Learning Webstie to you:http://www.mandarintube.com.
    There are four key strands to our web-based materials. Each can be used as a stand-alone resource, but together they can help ensure you get a truly integrated learning experience.

    Video Courses use everyday situations to help you
    master key vocabulary, grammar and phrases in context.

    MandarinTube Daily brings you breaking news and features
    direct from China, with every news report supported by written
    Chinese, pinyin and English translations.

    Word Up brings you Chinese straight from the streets, with
    all the key phrases your textbook never taught you…

    Sign Speak carries on the theme of real life Chinese,
    using common (and less common) signs from around
    Beijing to introduce you to more of China’s language and culture.

    Finally PhraseBuilder has been specially created to help non-Chinese people master the complexities of Chinese vocabulary. By grouping words into meaningful categories and introducing them through context-driven methods, PhraseBuilder helps you come to grips with pronunciation, character writing and sentence construction together.

  • jusy

    Not sure if you guys have seen this website — http://www.sanbit .com

    It seems like you can create your own words list and words on it. I registered, and create my word lists and browse other user’s words . It’s pretty good that you can copy other user’s words to be your own .
    You can use the tool to learning languages by write/read/listen/speak/game….
    Hope it could be help!

  • jusy

    Not sure if you guys have seen this website — http://www.sanbit.com

    It seems like you can create your own words list and words on it. I registered, and create my word lists and browse other user’s words . It’s pretty good that you can copy other user’s words to be your own .
    You can use the tool to learning languages by write/read/listen/speak/game….
    Hope it could be help!

  • http://blog.learn10.com/2009/03/16/10-ways-to-learn-a-new-language-for-free/ Learn10 - Power up your learning...

    […] There are many different types of sites for language learners because web 2.0 technology is so perfectly suited to helping you learn a new language. I have organised a tour of some of them here, and I’ve put together a directory of sites that […]

  • http://matbury.com/ Matt Bury

    Great article by Nicola Robinsonova!

    To me, it looks like a lot of startups are falling over themselves to offer social networking of all kinds to all people. The frameworks are undoubtedly there and there are some great ideas with using peer review so that you don’t have to hire qualified, experienced language instructors to give learners feedback – not such a bad thing since a lot of learners often have more experience than their tutors, especially in EFL!

    What I think is missing is a structured, content driven approach. The original learning materials offered on these sites appears to be rudimentary, poorly designed and without any referenced indication of language level. As far as I can see, the traditional publishers such as CUP, OUP and Pearson still hold all the trump cards and I think in the near future, we’ll be hearing more about e-learning from them.

    BTW, LiveMocha.com has recently announced a partnership with Pearson.

  • http://funnelbrain.com sam william

    Great list!!Adding another site to the list which i found a very effective way to learn faster that caught my eye recently .funnelbrain.com

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